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Kat McNamara is a badass. The first way is obvious: She’s a bonafide action star, who’s been chased by zombies in the Maze Runner trilogy, hunted down demons in Freeform’s Shadowhunters and dueled with supervillains in The CW’s Arrow, which airs its finale on January 29. The second way is a little less apparent: McNamara, 24, graduated from high school at 14. She received a bachelor’s degree in business at 17, and by the time she was 20, she was on her way to earn a master’s degree in applied economics. She can read her own contracts (something rare among actors), and a professor once described her as “so smart, it’s scary.”
It’s an impression that people don’t often have when they first meet her, but rest assured, Kat McNamara means business. “I have a very cheery personality and I’m often very bubbly. A lot of people, before they get to know me, can think that’s all there is,” she says. “That there’s not a level of intelligence or a level of seriousness or a level of badassery or even a level of darkness that can exist. That’s a misconception a lot of people have about me.”
Raised in Missouri, McNamara, the only child in a family of scientists and doctors, had dreams of becoming an economist. “I was a huge math nerd, and I loved school,” she says. “But I was also a dancer, and I had been doing that since I was a kid.” Her passion for dance led a family friend to cast her in a community theatre production when she was 12. The role was small, but it was enough for McNamara to realize her true calling as a performer. “I had one of those rare moments of clarity where I stepped on stage on opening night and I knew I was put on this earth to tell stories,” she says. “It hit me like a brick wall.”
She graduated from high school four years early and enrolled at the University of Missouri, Kansas City as a theatre major. But when she booked her first job, a Broadway musical in New York City opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, McNamara was faced with a choice: She could either drop out of college, which didn’t allow theatre students to work professionally while in school, or she could change her major. And so she went back to finance, which became her saving grace in Hollywood. “A lot of actors will listen to whatever their attorneys have to say,” she says. “But because I know what everything means, I tend to have plenty of questions on every contract to say, ‘Wait. What does this mean? What does this do? What are the implications of this down the road?’”
McNamara’s business degree also informed her outlook on equal pay and what she asks from her team when it’s time to negotiate. “I don’t want special treatment for any reason. I don’t want special treatment because I’m young. I don’t want special treatment because I’m an actor. I don’t want special treatment because I’m a woman,” she says. “I think ultimately that’s what equal pay seems to be about. It’s about realizing that we’re all human beings, and everyone should be fairly compensated for the work that they do.”
After college, McNamara went on to book small parts in TV shows like 30 Rock, Glee and The Fosters before her first major film role as Sonya in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials in 2015. Her big break came a year later when she was cast as Clary Faye, a teenage girl who learns that she’s a supernatural demon hunter, in Freeform’s Shadowhunters, based on Cassandra Clare’s young adult book series, The Mortal Instruments. The show—which McNamara found out she was cast in only 10 minutes before it was announced—shot her to a level of fame that only cult-favorite teen shows can do. Suddenly, she was one of Vanity Fair’s top 12 TV actors under 25, a People’s Choice Award winner, and a star with more than 3.7 million Instagram followers.
“Shadowhunters will always be really special to me because I’ve never had a character that’s so similar to who I am,” she says. “My journey very much parallels Clary’s journey as a girl who’s unsuspectingly thrown into this world with all this responsibility and has to grow up in the process. Shadowhunters became family for me.”
In 2018, McNamara was driving in her car when she learned that Shadowhunters was cancelled after three seasons. “I was shocked,” she says. “We all thought the show was going to continue.” Immediately, fans took to social media to express their outrage. The Shadowfam, the show’s fandom, called on networks like Netflix to save the series, as well as Freeform to renew Shadowhunters for a proper final season. Their efforts paid off, and the series officially ended in May 2019 with a two-and-a-half-hour finale. “Because we knew it was ending and we knew this was our time to pay homage to the books, to the fandom, to these characters, to this world that we built, we were able to go, ‘You know what? This is the last time we get to do this, so let’s go all out. Let’s give a 112 percent,’ and I think we did that,” McNamara says.
Arrow was McNamara second audition after she learned that Shadowhunters was cancelled. She didn’t know what the part was, but there was something about it that interested her. “The sides were dummy sides, so it was a made-up character just for the audition. It was, like, a rookie cop who had a dark past and a bit of a dry sense of humor,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh. I’ll get to do something different. Something more structured. I’ll get to learn what cops go through.’”
After she booked the role, McNamara received a call from the series’ showrunner, Beth Schwartz, who told her that her character wasn’t cop but was actually the daughter of Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) and Felicity Smoak, the show’s central romance. It was a lot of pressure. What she thought was a simple guest star was now Mia Smoak (a.k.a. Blackstar), Oliver and Felicity’s adult daughter from the future who was trained by supervillain Nyssa al Ghul and takes on the mantle of Green Arrow after her father’s heroic death. Mia, who was introduced in season 7 and became a main character in Arrow’s eighth and final season, is also the lead of Arrow’s upcoming spinoff, Green Arrow and the Canaries. The spinoff, which will be teased in Arrow’s series finale and include heroes like Laurel Lance (Black Siren) and Dinah Drake (Blake Canary), will also feature the Arrowverse’s first all-female superhero team.
“I think people are going to be very surprised at the take we have on things,” McNamara says of the finale. “Expect the unexpected because you can’t really count on anything.” As for the spinoff, she confirms that it will explore Mia in the aftermath of her father’s death. “Having to pick up her father’s mantle so soon after meeting him and so soon after losing him is very difficult. It’s a huge hurdle that Mia has to jump over and really determine if she can see herself as this hero,” McNamara says. “I think she questions a little bit if she can live up to his legacy.”
The past decade has seen a lot of change for McNamara. She’s gone from a math nerd in Missouri to the star of two TV shows and the idol of three massive fandoms. She calls herself a “perpetual student,” but perhaps her valuable lesson wasn’t about her career. “I’ve had a lot of doors open this year. I’ve had a lot of doors close this year. People have come into my life. People have gone out of my life. Jobs lost and gained, stories begun and ended,” she says. “I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is, as crazy as things can get, it’s important to pause, take a breath and appreciate the moment that you’re in.”
If there’s a character McNamara relates the most to, it’s Clary, who she describes as a “beacon of hope.” Despite her literal and figurative demons, Clary stays positive, but, like McNamara, that doesn’t mean that you can cross her. “I look at any adversity as a challenge, and I am stubborn about finding my silver lining,” she says. “That doesn’t mean that I’m not an intelligent person. It doesn’t mean that I can’t kick them in the ass.”